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To build or not to build, that’s the dam question in dry California

November 3, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Across California, after years of punishing drought, reservoirs that normally fill canals and make crops bloom are greatly depleted or even empty. Some say that getting more water into storage by building more dams is key. But dams also create problems for native fish, and some see them as a waste of money that may not provide sufficient supply. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

GWEN IFILL: A storm swept across California’s Bay Area yesterday. But the inch of rain it brought with it is scant relief for a state that’s experiencing one of the worst droughts on record.

One potential solution, building more reservoirs to store unpredictable rainfall, which could mean more dams.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the viability of such a proposal and the consequences for the Golden State.

SPENCER MICHELS: It may be the sign of a hopeful farmer: a biplane spreading fertilizer on a dry field in California’s Central Valley. There’s no irrigation in this part of the valley, so, for now, rain is the only way these crops will grow, and there hasn’t been much of that for the last four years.

And the reservoirs, like Folsom Lake near Sacramento, that normally fill the canals and make the crops bloom, are depleted. Folsom is just 17 percent full.

TIM QUINN, Executive Director, Association of California Water Agencies: It’s flat-out empty because of this drought.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tim Quinn is executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

And what’s the solution to this, build another reservoir?

TIM QUINN: Well, if we’d had more water going into storage, we could still have more left than we have got today.

SPENCER MICHELS: And that’s important, says Quinn, not just to Californians.

TIM QUINN: We’re a big part of this economy. And we provide food to the nation and to the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Quinn and many in state government want a comprehensive solution, including conservation.

TIM QUINN: We do need to build more dams, but we also need to connect them with more underground storage.

SPENCER MICHELS: But building new dams goes against a recent trend in some states, including Washington, of actually demolishing dams, mostly for environmental reasons like protecting fish and restoring wildlife habitat.

These days in California, the mood is quite different. Since the gold rush, building dams and canals has been California’s answer to unpredictable rain and snowfall. To get the water from where it falls in the mountains hundreds of miles away to the dry farms and populated areas, Californians have constructed more than 1,400 dams, including Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River.

In 1968, the state dedicated Oroville Dam, tallest dam in the country, and sent water south to farms and cities. For many farmers and those whose livelihoods are tied to farming, the success of those dams is a key to what needs to happen now.

Grant Garland is vice president of Bar ALE, a livestock and poultry feed mill in Williams, California.

GRANT GARLAND, Vice President, Bar ALE: We could solve the problem fairly easily by building something like the equivalent of five more lake Orovilles, where we’d have plenty of water to store, and we’d have hydroelectric power for both agricultural or urban and industrial purposes, and for the environment as well.

SPENCER MICHELS: That sentiment is echoed in radio ads playing in ag communities in the Central Valley and on the Internet.

NARRATOR: But the solution is more dam storage.

RON STORK, Friends of the River: People are frustrated. They don’t have as much water as they want. And they want to be able to do something with somebody else’s money.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ron Stork is policy director for Friends of the River, an environmental group.

RON STORK: When you do the arithmetic, the big dams that are being proposed right now wouldn’t add more than 1 percent to California’s developed water supply. The real solution is to recognize that you can’t develop much more water.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stork and other environmentalists like University of California fish biologist Peter Moyle, allege that dams have created major problems in rivers for the native fish population, especially in the drought.

PETER MOYLE, University of California, Davis: You get these severe problems, the environment always seems to lose.

SPENCER MICHELS: More dams, he says, will exacerbate the situation, especially for salmon.

PETER MOYLE: There are many places where the flows below the dams are simply not adequate to support big populations of salmon.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides, Moyle says, new dams don’t make economic sense.

PETER MOYLE: Essentially, all the good dam sites are taken. So whatever dams you build to try to increase storage, you’re really picking at the fringes.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, a year ago, spurred on by the drought, Californians approved a $7.5 billion water bond that requires spending $2.7 billion on water storage. Several projects are vying for that money, including a plan to raise Shasta Dam by 18 feet, even though the present lake rarely fills.

Another project would add a second dam and reservoir behind Friant Dam near Fresno on a river that largely is depleted of water, most of it channeled to San Joaquin Valley farmers. Some politicians want to remove federal protections from the mostly wild and free-flowing Merced River, below Yosemite National Park, so a reservoir can be enlarged.

There’s almost no disagreement, especially during the drought, that California needs more water storage. But building new dams and reservoirs, especially in a state that has every major river already dammed, strikes some people as a waste of money, a lot of money.

One proposal is to take this valley and flood it under 350 feet of water, with a big dam at the other end.

MARY WELLS, California Rancher: It’s a very bittersweet situation. I don’t want to lose my home of 40-some years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mary Wells lives in the hamlet of Sites, which would be inundated by the reservoir. But most of her farmlands are beyond the proposed lake.

MARY WELLS: We all ultimately look on the other side of these hills, and that’s where our livelihood is, the almond trees, the rice fields. They all need water. And if I’m to sustain the business I have created as a fifth-generation farming family, we have got to have additional water.

Good morning.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wells raises cattle, and grows hay, almonds and rice on land beyond the reservoir site, most of it irrigated. She has served on various water boards, and has advocated for decades to dam her valley and develop more water, even though private landowners, like her, who benefit will have to pay for at least half.

MARY WELLS: The reality of it is that the days of totally government-financed, be it federal or state, building of dams is long over. We are using the highest and best use for that water, and we therefore need to pay for that water.

SPENCER MICHELS: But not everyone agrees that supplying farms and new plantings of almonds are the best use for the water.

Jim Brobeck, a water policy analyst for AquAlliance in nearby Chico, says the state should encourage more unirrigated land.

JIM BROBECK, AquAlliance: California really needs to put a moratorium on the expansion of irrigated agriculture on land that is currently being used successfully as ranch land.

California has already overextended its water-based agriculture. And grazing is a very suitable use for the land up there.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides, he says, the cost of Sites’ reservoir, as much as $4 billion, could make the price of water prohibitive.

JIM BROBECK: This water will never be affordable by farmers, who need very inexpensive water.

SPENCER MICHELS: As the state continues to grow, keeping up with the demand for water will remain contentious. The water bond money will be allocated some time next year.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Spencer Michels in California’s Central Valley.